When Cold Pursuit was released earlier this year you could hear the critics snickering up their sleeves (well, you could if you drowned out the furore that surrounded certain comments made by its leading man, Liam Neeson, during an interview promoting the film) at what they perceived to be the film’s central premise;
“So this film has Liam Neeson playing a vengeful snowplough driver?” they chuckled into their skinny caramel macchiatos and rolled their eyes beneath their skinny designer frames, somewhat missing the point. I mean yes, this film does indeed see the Taken star plays a humble snowplough driver from the sleepy Rocky Mountains resort of Kehoe whose quiet and ordinary life of model citizenship takes an unexpected path towards brutal vigilantism when his son dies from an apparent heroin overdose. Yes, that is where Neeson’s aging action hero career has arrived at now and, to be fair to the critics, it does sound silly. But, in making their obvious joke, they’ve neglected to explain that Cold Pursuit is in itself supposed to be a very tongue-in-cheek black comedy.
Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland, this is actually an English-language remake of an earlier film of his that I really wish I’d seen before this one. It’s called Kraftidioten (released as In Order of Disappearance, though the proper translation would be ‘Prize Idiot’ – which gives you an idea at the level of pessimistic comedy we’re operating at), and it starred his regular leading man, Stellan Skarsgård as Nils Dickman; a respected community leader who suspects foul play when he learns that his son has died from drugs. Investigating by himself, Nils uncovers a gang war between Serbian criminals and a kingpin known only as ‘The Count’ and begins to wreak his revenge, one guilty perpetrator at a time.
Little has changed in translating the narrative to America, and yet everything has changed too. Neeson stars as Nils Coxman, recent winner of ‘citizen of the year’ for his duties on the snowplough. When his son dies, he refuses to believe the official verdict and delves into the criminal underworld to discover that his son was murdered on the orders of a flamboyant and mercurial drug lord known as ‘Viking’, played with a perpetual ugly, childish sneer by English actor Tom Bateman. And so Neeson’s snowplough driver leaves behind the same road he has travelled down daily for umpteen years to take ‘the road less travelled’ – a very dark and bloody path indeed. It is here that Neeson does what is now expected of him by audiences around the world – he bloodily and methodically picks off Viking’s cartel of imaginatively names enforcers (Speedo, Mustang, Santa, to name just three) using methods this most unassuming of men has picked up from reading crime fiction. As the white slopes of Kehoe begin to turn blood-red, a turf war erupts between Viking and his rival, a Native-American don known as White Bull (Tom Jackson), with Nils caught in the middle.
My main problem with Cold Pursuit is a common one – I just don’t think stuff from Scandinavia (or indeed any European country) travels all that well to America, especially comedy as remakes of foreign language comedies have proved to be notoriously difficult for Hollywood to effectively pull off. Just look at the name change of our central protagonist; in Kraftidioten he is Dickman, which (to my mind at least) suggests something of the ‘Prize Idiot’ translated title. The joke is on him, but it’s a joke that is simply lost in translation here as he’s renamed Coxman – with characters pontificating on how such a name suggests a skilled lover or Lothario. In Cold Pursuit, the meaning of the gag is subverted until it is lost and no longer bears any relation to its original purpose. Liam Neeson’s single-entendre Coxman is simply a man who will fuck you over if you cross him. Skarsgård’s is the fool who succumbs to the instincts of revenge. It doesn’t end there either as there’s something really tin-eared about Cold Pursuit which means that things that may well have truly been morbidly humourous in Kraftidioten just feel embarrassingly, tonally awkward here. It’s almost as if you’re not sure if it’s OK to laugh at what is occurring on the screen, and there’s nothing from the cast to tip you the wink to do so either, with Neeson in particular playing the role as straight as he had done in Taken, Unknown or any other action thriller he has starred in from the last ten years or so. If your leading man doesn’t seem to realise he’s in a comedy, can you really expect your audience to accept the humour?
You would think that any director, when being given the opportunity to remake your film, would set out to right some of the mistakes they had originally made, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hans Petter Moland. A cursory glance through the reviews for Kraftidioten suggests major flaws in how the film chooses to depict the relationship between Nils and his wife and how it breaks down in the wake of their son’s death and Nils’ vendetta which he of course keeps from her. It’s a subplot that isn’t corrected in Cold Pursuit, leaving poor Laura Dern with very little to do in the deeply underwritten role of Neeson’s grieving wife until she simply disappears from the screen. It’s fair to say that multi-dimensional characterisation isn’t really on offer in Cold Pursuit; the necessary expediency of characters who each meet gruesome fates only serves to highlight the one-note, one-joke, flimsy nature of the material, whilst there’s something deeply unforgiveable about casting Emmy Rossum and John Doman in roles of such lame genre stereotypes as jaded and willfully ineffective cop and eager, idealistic rookie and then, more often than not, promptly forget about them for long stretches at a time. Watching Cold Pursuit has made me eager to check out Kraftidioten though, because I suspect it will be more tonally satisfying in its native tongue. As it stands this American remake aims for the sweet spot between the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (or its subsequent TV series) and the Tim Roth drama Tin Star, misses by a mile, and proves hard to warm to. Still, I did get to hear one of my favourite Christmas tunes, The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles, a full seven months before it’s acceptable to listen to such a song, so for that I thank it kindly.